Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2021

Team USA Stumbles, But The Larger Stories Await

The good news is that two full weeks remain in the Games of the XXXIII Olympiad.  Unless of course, that’s the bad news.  What is certain is that three days into the Tokyo Summer Games, still styled the 2020 Olympics despite having been postponed for a full year, the downbeat headlines have far outweighed the positive ones.  For fans in this country, that trend started on what was officially referred to as Day -2, since there are now so many events crammed into the schedule that competition started even before Friday’s Opening Ceremony.  On Wednesday, Sweden’s women’s soccer team stunned the favored U.S. squad 3-0 in the first match of the round-robin Group Stage.  The result, in a game that was even more lopsided than the embarrassing score, ended the USWNT’s 44-game unbeaten streak, and was the first defeat under coach Vlatko Andonovski, who took the team’s reins from Jill Ellis when she stepped aside following the American triumph at the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Andonovski switched to a veteran-heavy starting lineup and the U.S. team responded with a 6-1 thrashing of overmatched New Zealand on Saturday.  With one more Group Stage game to play, the U.S. remains the betting favorite for the gold medal, but at the very least fans – and perhaps more important, other teams – have been reminded that nothing is inevitable. 

Although if any result at the Summer Olympics would qualify for that description, it would be men’s basketball.  Since the sport was added to the Games in 1936, the U.S. has won 15 gold medals in 18 appearances (the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics), and 6 golds in the 7 Olympics since the basketball competition was opened to professionals.  But there were clear warning signs that an upset was possible when the U.S. team, playing in Las Vegas earlier this month, managed just a split of four exhibition games against other national squads.  Those signs are now flashing bright red after the not-quite Dream Team dropped its opening contest of the Olympic tournament Sunday, 83-76 to France.  Team USA will be a prohibitive favorite in its two remaining Group Stage games, against Iran on Wednesday and the Czech Republic next Saturday.  But for the moment, the U.S. sits in the very unfamiliar position of last place in Group A.

The weekend’s headlines didn’t improve when coverage turned to gymnastics, where the U.S. women’s team, led by the transcendent Simone Biles, was expected to dominate.  But while the performances in the preliminary round were solid, and the U.S. easily qualified for the final round of the team competition, with Biles and several other team members moving on in pursuit of individual medals, it wasn’t the U.S. but Russia that led at the conclusion of the opening round.  As with women’s soccer and men’s basketball, these early results aren’t conclusive, but it’s fair to say the opening days of these Olympics have not produced the headlines fans in this country were expecting.

Of course, everyone knows that the Olympics are not just about the medal count for one’s home country.  Yea, right.  The reality is that NBC and its various broadcast partners have plenty of heartwarming video stories about athletes from around the globe ready to be shown at any moment.  But one can be certain that said moment will not arrive when an American squad or athlete is in serious contention for a medal, and the same is no doubt true for broadcasters from every other country.  No matter the nation, the Games provide the best possible opportunity for raging jingoism barely hidden behind a fig leaf of international comity.  Which is why fans in the U.S. hope the fact that these Olympics are just getting started is good news, but perhaps somewhere deep down, dread the possibility that the setbacks of the first few days could become a pattern over the next two weeks. 

Yet for all the inevitable focus on medal counts and national results, the lasting stories of every one of these quadrennial extravaganzas are about individuals.  Inevitably, some will educate as tales of disappointment, while others inspire as stories of achievement.  The next two weeks will bring a plethora of both, as did the Game’s first days.

MyKayla Skinner was a surprising choice as one of two members of the U.S. gymnastics squad who, under new and widely disparaged rules for these Games, could compete only for individual medals.  Her selection was unexpected because her strongest specialties, the vault and floor exercise, matched those of the other individual member, Jade Carey.  With each country limited to two entrants in each individual event and Biles certain to claim one, the strange decision left the other two Americans competing directly against each other.  Sure enough, Skinner turned in the fourth best score on the vault of all the competitors in the preliminaries, but since it was third best among the Americans, her Olympics have ended.

But even as these Games were denying Skinner’s athletic goals, they were unexpectedly affirming the broader objectives of Naomi Osaka.  When last seen in public she was being run out of the French Open by the powers of tennis for daring to challenge their authority.  But after speaking up for mental wellness, and after speaking up for racial justice, there was Osaka, a surprise choice to light the Olympic flame at Friday’s Opening Ceremony.  It was a bold decision by Japan’s organizing committee, both internationally because of the causes Osaka champions and locally because of her mixed parentage.  And it completely redeemed an Opening Ceremony that until then, with no fans in attendance, seemed utterly pointless. 

Which, were it not for the enduring power of individual stories like Osaka’s and Skinner’s and so many others, would be an excellent description for the Olympic Games.

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